Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 9, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Jonah 1-4
Sometimes I take myself too seriously, you know, having a radio program and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm no Garrison Keillor. It's not like people ask me for my autograph when I go to the grocery store; it's mostly just at Lutheran churches. I was at this Lutheran church up north and I recognized one of the people there. He saw me from across the room and came over to say hello. He seemed pretty pleased that I had remembered him. And just between you and me, I was pleased that I had remembered him. See, people tell me stories about this other man who held this position as Lutheran Hour Speaker, a man by the name of Dr. Ozzie Hoffmann. Dr. Hoffmann had a photographic memory they'd say. He'd never forget a name, even if it had been years, even if he'd only met you one time. He'd see you again, look you right in the eye, and call you by name.
And so I was pretty pleased that here I was, remembering this man, visiting with him at his church. I had just started in this position and so he said to me, "Speaker of The Lutheran Hour—that's a pretty big deal. How's it feel to be famous?" I told him that I was still getting used to it. I said this very modestly, of course. As Garrison Keillor said, "We Lutherans are a modest people. We never make a fuss, and it sure would be a better world if they were all as modest as us."
Just then the pastor came over, and my old friend introduced me. He said, "Pastor, this is our new Speaker of The Lutheran Hour, but I knew him before he was famous." And right there in front of his pastor, I said back to him, "It's good to know who your true friends are, Brad." And he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in, and he didn't even look offended when he said, "It's Brandon. My name's Brandon." I don't appreciate looking like a fool any more than the next guy, but I appreciate moments like that because they help me take myself less seriously and God more so.
That's one way to state the purpose of the ancient account of the prophet Jonah recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Jonah is a book that will help us all take ourselves a little bit less seriously and God more so. For the Jewish people, the account of Jonah is read aloud in its entirety every year, during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And beyond the Jewish people, Jonah has become one of the most well-known stories in the world. For two and a half millennia, it has inspired commentary and study. It's influenced great works of culture like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Disney's Pinocchio.
The story of Jonah is even summarized in the Qur'an of Islam. And of course before Islam and Melville and Pinocchio, Jesus of Nazareth incorporated Jonah into His teaching—not by treating it like a legend as it's become fashionable in recent times. No, Jesus referred to Jonah as a real-life account and as a key to understand His own mission. Jonah has been translated into more than 700 languages and retold countless times. The whole story only takes about 12 minutes to tell. And if you listen to it with an open heart and an open mind, it'll do something to you. It'll help you take yourself a little less seriously and God more so. But why should you? Why should you take yourself less seriously?
Well, if you're anything like me, then your ego can be a bit of a loud mouth. Your ego is that voice in your head that's always trying to spin things in your favor, that's always trying to portray you as the hero of the story. And if not the hero, then the persecuted victim. Now, in some situations you might be one of those, but not in every story, not even in most stories. And if you let your ego keep telling you that you are, then you won't be able to cheer when someone else is the hero, and you'll miss the gratitude that comes when someone else steps in and saves your hind end from the trouble that you got yourself in. You and I need to take ourselves less seriously—not so we can put on a show of modesty, but so that we can take others more seriously.
How do you know if you're taking yourself too seriously? Ask yourself this, how easily am I offended? Or how often am I offended? There was this guy named Marty that I knew in college. Marty had these special sensors that could detect an overworked ego as soon as it walked into the room. And at some point during our freshman year of college, his antenna locked in on me. I was going through an identity crisis that year. I was trying to figure out who I was, who I should be. Would I be the kind of person that my parents raised me to be or someone else or something in between? And to make it worse, as I was trying to answer these questions, I was running from God like Jonah. To cover this internal turmoil, I put on a show of toughness. I wanted to look tough so that no one would mess with me. And I took myself very seriously, and Marty could sense it. And he had this way of poking and prodding at my ego. He didn't just make me mad, he offended me.
And do you know what it's like to be offended? When someone asks you for your advice and then they went and did the opposite. When you contributed the most in that project, but others got recognized for it. When they didn't visit you, even though they promised they would. When someone questioned your intelligence, your integrity, your modesty, and they made you question who you thought you were. If you know what it's like to be offended, you can relate to the prophet Jonah. See, Jonah was a big deal in ancient Israel. Now I'm not saying he was an Elijah or anything, but he was a successful prophet. He had an impressive track record, but then one day God called him to this job that he felt was beneath him. At first it sounds like he runs away because he's afraid. But then by the end of the story, we hear what was really going on. Jonah was just taking himself too seriously that's all.
So here it is. Listen to the book of Jonah.
Now the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh that great city and call out against it because their evil has come up before Me." But Jonah arose and fled to Tarshish instead, away from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, found a ship bound for Tarshish and after paying its price, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break apart. All the sailors were afraid and each of them cried out to their own god. And they threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone down into the depths of the ship and there he fell into a deep sleep.
The captain of the ship came and said to him, "How can you sleep? Get up, call on your God. Who knows? Maybe your God will give us a thought, and we won't perish." Then the sailors said to one another, "Come on, let's cast lots and find out who's responsible for this evil that's come against us." And they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, "Tell us, please, who's responsible for this evil that's come against us. What do you do? Where do you come from? What's your country? From what people are you?"
Jonah answered, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord the God of heaven who made the sea and the land." At this the sailors were afraid with a great fear because they knew that he was running from the Lord for he had already told them so. They said to him, "Tell us what we should do to you to make the sea calm down for us?" Because the sea was getting even more and more tempestuous. And Jonah said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm for you. Because I know that it is on my account that this storm has come against you." Instead, the sailors did their best to row the ship back to land, but they could not because the sea grew even wilder than before. And so the sailors called to the Lord, "O Lord, do not let us perish because of this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for innocent blood because You are the Lord and You do just as you please."
And they lifted Jonah up and they hurled him into the sea, and the raging sea grew calm. And the sailors worshiped the Lord with a great worship and they offered sacrifice to Him and they vowed vows to Him. And then the Lord provided a great fish, and it swallowed Jonah up. And Jonah was inside the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And from inside the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God saying, "In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the sea, into the heart of the deep. An ocean current surrounded me; all Your breakers and waves swept over me. I said I've been cut off from Your sight, but I will look again towards Your holy temple. The waters around me came up to my neck. The deep engulfed me and seaweed was wrapped up around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down. The earth beneath barred me in forever. But You, You brought my life up from the pit. O Lord, my God. When my life was ebbing away, O Lord I remembered You. My prayer rose to You, to Your holy temple, from among those who cling to worthless idols, who abandoned the One who loves them. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will offer sacrifices to You. What I have vowed, I will make good. Salvation belongs to the Lord."
Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah out on to dry land. And the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh that great city and call out to it the message that I'm about to speak to you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the Word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was a great city belonging to God, a walk of three days. And on the first day Jonah entered in and called out, "Yet in forty days, Nineveh is about to be overturned!" And the people of Nineveh believed God. They trusted God, and they declared a fast and they put on sackcloth—all of them from the greatest to the least. And when the message came to the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in ashes.
And he issued a proclamation in Nineveh saying, "By the decree of the king and his nobles, people and animals, herds and flocks, no one is to taste anything, neither be given anything to eat nor any water to drink. But let man and beast both be covered in sackcloth and let everyone urgently call on God and let them turn, each of them, from their evil ways and from the violence of their hands. Who knows, God may turn and change His verdict and turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish." And God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way. And He changed His verdict about the evil that He had threatened to do to them and He did not do it.
But this was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and he burned with anger. And he said to the Lord, "Ah, Lord, isn't this what I said when I was back on my own land? This is the reason that I fled to Tarshish. I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and changing Your verdict about evil. Now Lord take my life from me because it would be good for me to die and not to live." And the Lord said to Jonah, "Is it good for you to be angry?" But Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. And there he built himself a shelter and sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord provided a vine to grow up over Jonah, to give shade to his head and to deliver him from his evil. And Jonah rejoiced over the vine with a great joy.
At dawn the next day, God provided a worm which struck the vine, and it withered. And after the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun struck Jonah's head and he became faint and he asked his soul to die. He said, "It would be good for me to die and not to live." And God said to him, "Is it good for you to be angry about the vine?" And Jonah said, "It is good and I am angry enough to die." And the Lord said to him, "You yourself had pity for this vine; though you did not tend it and you did not make it grow. It sprang up overnight and overnight it perished. Should I not have pity on Nineveh—this great city in which there are more than 120,000 human beings who don't know the difference between their right and their left and many animals as well? Should I not have compassion on them?"
That's the end. The book of Jonah ends with a question, a question that has a way of poking, prodding at an overworked ego. It's a question about openness to others. Are you open to the truth that God's compassion is open to all? Jesus, God's Son, answered this question. He used His whole life to answer it. God the Father's implicit question to Jesus is an echo of His explicit question to Jonah: "Jonah, are you willing to open yourself up to My mercy—mercy for everybody, even for people who offend you, even for people who take themselves too seriously? Are you willing to deflect wrath for them, to suffer blame for them, to take the fall for them, to carry the cross for them so that they can be saved?" And where Jonah was silent, Jesus answered His Father, "Thy will be done," He said. Jesus said yes for all of us. By His cross and His resurrection, Jesus said yes to you.
That's how serious He is about you. So now it's your turn to answer the question: Are you open to God's compassion—not only for yourself, but for everyone, even those who offend you? Look, I know how it goes. Sometimes I feel so wrapped up in myself that I can't imagine changing, even when I want to change. And if change were up to me, if it were up to you, we'd be lost. But it's not up to us. God is serious about delivering us from our evil. Jesus is our promise, and Jonah is our example.
You heard Jonah's book. It's hard to imagine a person more wrapped up in himself. But think about where we got the book of Jonah. If we take Jesus' Word seriously and we believe that it actually happened, it seems obvious how we got it. Jonah gave it to us. And that means eventually Jonah got over himself. Apparently, he even laughed at himself. He wrote a beautiful story, making himself look the fool to magnify God's mercy for everybody. Jonah started taking himself less seriously and God more so. And if there's hope for him—there's hope for us, isn't there?
No Reflections for May 9, 2021
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Look, Oh, Look, the Sight Is Glorious" by Kenneth Kosche. From Triumphant Lamb by Concordia University-Wisconsin (© 1996 Concordia Publishing House)
"Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)